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Surfing the data tsunami tomorrow

- Shaun Smillie

Humankind is facing an ever-growing data tsunami that could swamp us as a species – or provide us with unheard of opportunities.

Technology, 4IRSA, data, artificial intelligence, ICT, computers

We have entered an age where information is being released at increasing rates. Ninety percent of all data generated in the history of humankind were produced in just the last two years. Mining and analysing this data will require new technologies and skill sets, and this is where universities like Wits hope to play a role. With new technologies come the promise of jobs, medical breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries. And it is all so new. 

"Data analysis and data science were not fields of study 15 years ago, so some of the jobs to be created by this technology do not exist," explains Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Postgraduate Affairs at Wits. "So the future of data is about the future of jobs."  

Managing mass info in Africa 

Vilakazi’s mandate is to both position Wits for this future and help South Africa and Africa leverage it. 

There have already been projects where South African scientists have had to tackle big data. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Karoo is now generating more data than the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. And the SKA is still in its infancy and promises to spew out even more data in the decades to come. “So there has to be a future where we need to be thinking how we manage this data,” says Vilakazi 

As a species, humans are not neurologically wired to process all this information. Adam Pantanowitz, a biomedical engineer in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, says, “Dealing with data in the future is going to be a challenge and an opportunity, and one of the main ways we are going to tackle this is through machine learning and artificial intelligence [AI].”  

Both these technologies will enable us to process and make sense of vast amounts of data. Wits has joined several projects across the continent to deal with the data management challenge. In 2019, Wits became the first African partner on the IBM Quantum Computing (IBM Q) Network, which will include 15 African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) partners. This network will enable researchers to use quantum computing and machine learning in fields such as cosmology, molecular biology and HIV drug research.   

Wits University is also a founding member of the 4IRSA, which aims to help South Africa respond to the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, through research. By harnessing data and utilising it to its full potential, Pantanowitz believes the spin-offs will be immense.   

“A huge belief I have is that the most successful cities, nations and continents of the future will be those that will be able to sense their environment and create feedback loops that act rapidly on that environment,” he says. “We would be able to make better decisions from a resourcing and governance perspective.”   

The African advantage 

Although it may appear that Africa – with its lack of infrastructure and digital divide – is ill prepared for such a future, this might be to the advantage of the continent, believes Vilakazi 

“Being behind means you can leapfrog, so we must take advantage of our disadvantage,” he says. “There has been a lot of work over the last decade. Cables are being laid across the entire African continent, and we are experimenting with new protocols of wireless transmission, like 5G tech.”  

Networks have also been established across the continent to share knowledge and help Africans develop their own technologies. Dr Benjamin Rosman, a Senior Lecturer in the Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, is a founding member of the Deep Learning Indaba programme. “The programme aims to increase African participation and contribution to the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning,” he says.  

Participation has grown remarkably over the last couple of years, but being able to leapfrog existing technology means having something with which to replace it. In the Wits School of Physics, scientists are working on something that could one day transport huge packets of data.  

Professor Andrew Forbes and his team at the Structured Light Laboratory at Wits are working on using light patterns to increase the bandwidth of communications systems one hundred-fold. These patterns, because they are unique, can be used to encode information. This communication system will work over  “free space” – meaning through the air – so no infrastructure, such as cabling, is needed.

“We have trialled it in the laboratory and it all works. Now we have a local company that has ceded their IP [intellectual property] to us and we plan to use this IP as a platform to build a practical device,” says Forbes. “We are hoping in the next few years that we would have taken the lab demonstration through to a device that can then be commercialised.” 

With the ever-increasing utilisation of data come issues of ethical use. Already there are allegations of elections being swung through the information gleaned from millions of social media accounts.   

Rosman is working on the ethics around AI in collaboration with the Wits Philosophy Department. 

“We have been looking at what should be happening with AI in Africa. There are a lot of questions on what kind of expectations people should have, what should be taken into consideration when these systems are built,” he says.   

Another issue is that of culture. “It is important to get more involvement from society, and for people who think about societal norms and values and ethics to get involved in these conversations, otherwise they are just kind of implicitly dealt with by whoever designed the system,” he says.  

Ultimately, it is going to come down to just how we are going to deal with that data tsunami and if we learn to surf that wave to a brighter future.

  • Shaun Smillie is a freelance journalist. 
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office.  
  • Read more in the eighth issue, themed: #Code how our researchers are exploring not only the Fourth Industrial Revolution manifestations of code, such as big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, but also our genetic code, cryptic codes in queer conversation, political speak and knitting, and interpreting meaning through words, animation, theatre, and graffiti. We delve into data surveillance, the 21st Century ‘Big Brothers’ and privacy, and we take a gander at how to win the Lottery by leveraging the universal code of mathematics.